Monday, April 18, 2011

This is Your Brain on Shakespeare

Shakespeare's literary career, which spanned a quarter century roughly between the years 1587 and 1612, came at a time when the English language was at a powerful stage of development. The great fluidity of Early Modern English gave Shakespeare an enormous amount of room to innovate.

In all of his plays, sonnets and narrative poems, Shakespeare used 17,677 words. Of these, he invented approximately 1,700, or nearly 10 percent. Shakespeare did this by changing the part of speech of words, adding prefixes and suffixes, connecting words together, borrowing from a foreign language, or by simply inventing them ...

In the past, most brain experiments would involve the study of defects, and use a lack of health in the brain to show what it can do. Professor Philip Davis from the University of Liverpool's School of English is approaching brain research in a different way. He is studying what he calls "functional shifts" that demonstrate how Shakespeare's creative mistakes "shift mental pathways and open possibilities" for what the brain can do. It is Shakespeare's inventions--particularly his deliberate syntactic errors like changing the part of speech of a word--that excite us, rather than confuse us.

With the aid of brain imaging scientists, Davis conducted neurolinguistic experiments investigating sentence processing in the brain. The experiments showed that when people are wired they have different reactions to hearing different types of sentences.

One type of measured brain responses is called an M400, which occurs 400 milliseconds after the brain experiences a thought or perception. This is considered a normal response. On the other hand, a P600 response indicates a peak in brain activity 600 milliseconds after the brain experiences a quite different type of thought or perception. Davis describes the P600 response as the "Wow Effect," in which the brain is excited, and is put in "a state of hesitating consciousness."

... For Davis, we need creative language "to keep the brain alive." He points out that so much of our language today, written in bullet points or simple sentences, fall into predictability. "You can often tell what someone is going to say before they finish their sentence" he says. "This represents a gradual deadening of the brain." ...

via This is Your Brain on Shakespeare | How to Think Like Shakespeare | Big Think.

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